Should I Write A Sample For FREE? Ask Anne The Pro Writer

by Anne Wayman

should I write for freeHi Anne,

A potential employer wants me to write a 500 word article to try out for the position.   He’s already seen lots of samples of my published writing.  What is your advice on this?  How do I ask for payment on this article, if that’s what I do?  Thanks.

Best,

DL

Hi DL,

Thanks for your question. This comes up more often than you might guess. Print magazines often ask for an article “on spec.” That means if they like it they’ll buy it. In print it’s a totally acceptable request, particularly in the beginning of the relationship. It’s understood and sometimes even spelled out that if they accept it they will pay, period.

With the web and the folks wanting to only pay a buck or two for articles, it’s gotten to be a problem because it’s so very easy to rip you off by publishing your article and never paying you for it.


You don’t say how much this particular employer is willing to pay, so here’s a rule of thumb:

If they aren’t paying you a dime a word or more, don’t do anything on spec or as a sample.

My thinking is this. At a dime a word, they are planning on paying $50 per article (yes, there are people willing to pay that and more for 500 word articles). I figure if they are willing to go that high they are probably legit. So I might write one sample. Before I wrote I’d be likely to fire off a quick reply saying something like “okay, but how will I get paid for that one?” Sounding naive at this point is a good idea.

But it would also make sense, since you’ve got samples they’ve already seen, to simply respond with something like, “I’m sorry; I’m unwilling to give you a free sample since you’ve already seen what I can do.”

In fact, that response might work even for the low paying employers.

Whatever you decide, don’t spend much time on it – not until you’re actually writing for pay.

Who has experience with this they’d like to share? Tell us about it.

[askanne]

[sig]

Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Alicia February 8, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Great advice Anne :) I’ve been burned once before writing a 500-word article as a sample, and I’ve never done it since; however, I agree that in situations when the money is significant and the client/company seems legit, like you mentioned, I’d probably make an exception.

Here’s a sort of twist I gave a sample-seeking job advertiser last month. He owns a website that offers downloadable emoticons for email and chat devices like MSN. He’d just added a ton of new emoticons, divided into categories, and needed someone to write two-paragraph descriptions for each category. The pay was fairly decent (given that that deadline was a month and, mixed in with my other regular work, probably would only take half an hour a day, if that), but he wanted three two-paragraph samples (which were really more blurbs than paragraphs) before he’d consider an applicant (and each blurb needed to be 3-5 sentences). I was interested in the job, but didn’t have that kind of time to dedicate to writing samples, so I wrote the three paragraphs but only included one sentence in each. In my application letter, I explained to him why I did this (“I’ve only included one sentence in each blurb because these are samples. If hired, the real paragraphs/blurbs will meet your requirements,” etc. and so forth.) And wouldn’t you know, I got the job.

So, there’s something to think about. “Haggling” over samples doesn’t exactly paint the best picture for it, haha, but in some instances (like mine), it’s possible to say, “OK, this is what you want in terms of a sample. Given that this is my job – I have established clients to provide for – this is what I have the time, and feel comfortable, providing for you on a sample basis.” If it works, wonderful. If not, there are other fish in the sea :)
.-= Alicia´s last blog ..Setting, Increasing, and Sticking To Your Freelance Writing Rates =-.

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Anne February 9, 2010 at 10:04 am

Alicia, I’d say you weren’t haggling so much as giving him enough to make a decision while setting a firm boundary that prevented exploitation – good job and great example of how everything’s negotiable in our freelance writing world.

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Autumn March 12, 2009 at 2:01 am

Yeah, I went against my normal procedure recently and wrote a sample because I had very little work one day and figured it would only take me a half hour. I sent them the sample and received an email that I didn’t get the job, and have read other people’s similar stories with this company. As easy as it was to write, it makes me angry that people do that. Who knows, someone could have spent half a day perfecting a sample because they really want the job, only to have this “potential employer” steal their work and then reject them, no matter the quality of the sample. I learned my lesson, and I want others to know about this type of scam.

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Zach March 10, 2009 at 10:46 am

I just want to echo a couple previous comments. Writing on spec is one thing, but I’ve had a few magazines say “We want to run the article but can’t pay you for it because of the economy,” or “if we like the first (free) article, we’ll pay you for the next.”

Two strategies have worked well for me in response.

For the first magazine, I wanted the article to run just for the experience so I said that although ten cents a word was the normal minimum I would accept, I’d take $25 once. I think it’s important to voice your normal minimum or else you’re going to get offered whatever you took on the first job for the second job.

For a recent client who wanted me to write a free sample, I just said “I no longer write free samples because the many samples I already supplied to you accurately demonstrate my ability and experience, but I would be willing to write a sample at a heavily discounted rate of ______.”

Both tactics worked and lead to more work.

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Matthew Stibbe March 10, 2009 at 10:00 am

I’ve been a (first) freelance journalist and (now) freelance marketing copywriter for nearly ten years. I’ve been asked to do free pitches on three or four occasions, once by a large company that could afford to pay. I have always turned these requests down. My intuition is that a company that can’t differentiate a good writer from a bad writer by reading samples isn’t likely to change their opinion of you if you do a freebie specially for them. What they’re really testing is not your writing skills but the elasticity of your fee structure. It also suggests that they are going to be very demanding or difficult to deal with. After all, if they expect something for nothing, when they start paying for your work isn’t it likely that their expectations will rise?

However, there a couple of things you can offer. In my case, I make clear that I will keep working on a piece until the client is happy with it. This is another way of reassuring a client without giving in on price. Also, I regularly run free seminars and write content for my blog on a free basis and I tend to view this as karmic goodwill. I recently launched a PowerPoint service and I have done a free presentation for an existing client as a way of proving my capabilities in this new field BUT I know the client could pay me and has given me a huge amount of work over the course of six or seven years. It’s better to give freebies to say ‘thank you’ than to say ‘please.’

Matthew Stibbe’s last blog post..Writing tools: concentration timer

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DL March 9, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Thanks, folks. This is very helpful. I thought I had seen this advice on the site before, but now that I need it, I wanted to be sure of how to handle it. It’s great to have one more skill in this business.

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Fiona March 9, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Couldn’t agree more. I received a similar request this morning. He’d seen lots of my clips, we’d talked in detail and now he wanted me to write a sample “to see if my writing style worked for this particular topic.” I wrote back explaining that I allowed my clips to speak for themselves and that I no longer provided free samples; I would be happy to write the piece at my regular rate.

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Devon Ellington March 9, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Don’t write a free sample specific to their site, especially if they’ve seen your samples/portfolio. I’ll usually agree to a lower rate for the sample, but not for free. If they’re professionals, they can tell by your samples if you’ve got the style and tone they need.

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